Speaking Book from Literary Mama

IMG_0353I’m pleased to share this essay, just published in LITERARY MAMA

Speaking Book

http://www.literarymama.com/

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Even though there isn’t a shred of Nordic ancestry in my DNA, this past year I utterly embraced the idea of Jolabokaflod, the Icelandic tradition of giving books in the yuletide season. The fact that I am Jewish and do not even celebrate Christmas was utterly irrelevant. This was not simply an efficient solution to holiday gift giving. For weeks I agonized about my choices, eventually settling on titles as diverse as Alexandra Horowitz’s incisive On Looking (for my niece) to Annie Dillard’s luminous Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (for two of my sons). For me the rules of Jolabokaflod giving were straightforward but rigorous: I had to have read the book I was giving, and I had to do my utmost to match the book to the recipient. There was nothing haphazard about my choices. In other words, I was matching the books I loved to the people I loved.

For me I realized, Jolabokaflod was an extension of a language I had been speaking with both passion and conviction my whole life. Jolabokaflod is about speaking book.

Absurdly, although we live in the age of split-second communications, actually communicating—that is, making our deepest feelings known and understood—is still one of the most daunting and seemingly insurmountable tasks each of us faces throughout our lives. Many of us are simply too short on time, or too shy, or too tongue-tied to reach out to each other. In a sense then, speaking bookthe act of giving books or suggesting books to those we care for, is something of a compressed, but explosively powerful, shorthand for connection. Speaking book bridges spaces between people. It can be an act of courage to suggest or give a beloved book, the fragile offer of a peek into one’s own interior life. Sharing books is also a way of sending people to a place you cannot necessarily go yourself, with faith in their ability to get there. Sometimes giving a book is a badge of honor, showing pride in what someone aspires to be, occasionally before they even know those aspirations themselves.

I became fluent in speaking book because, although I didn’t realize it at the time, book was spoken to me from the very beginning. Neither of my parents are obvious and obsessive readers. In retrospect, how could they have been? My father, one of the finest optometrists in the state of Michigan, worked incredibly long hours, including weekends. My mother was home with my two sisters and me, assorted dogs, Sisyphean mountains of laundry, constant cooking, and the continuous stream of ever-present anxieties and miniseries-worthy dramas. Her at-home workdays were bereft of bookends—in other words, never-ending.

And yet, my mother made sure my sisters and I were wielding library cards with the slashing exuberance of Zorro as soon as we could scratch out our signatures with those big red jumbo pencils. But this wasn’t enough. My parents were adamant that there would be books—real, honest-to-goodness, important books—in our own home. With metronomic regularity, Book of the Month Club began depositing everything from Plato’s Republic to The Sun Also Rises on our doorstep, ponderous, slipcovered volumes that bricked themselves stolidly into the shelves with the immobile and straight-backed sobriety of the Queen’s Guard. While these were showplace books, meant for adornment, their very presence in our house meant that books mattered.

But if the Book of the Month Club books were impressively untouchable, the World Book Encyclopedias were invitingly grabbable. Pulling volumes out at random, boldly riffling the pages like a Vegas blackjack dealer, I would lie by the radiator sinking down into the words and burying myself in a sparkling melange of weirdly disparate ideas. How wrenching that Beethoven was completely deaf and couldn’t even hear his ninth symphony performed, nor listen to the rapturous applause! If the Egyptians mummified their pets, it meant that they adored them, right? How on earth did Nellie Bly pack her tiny handbag for an 80-day trip around the world? My parents never kept track of what I was reading. No one ever quizzed me on what I’d learned or what I knew. My parents just made sure the World Books were there and that I was left alone to read them whenever and however I liked. Speaking book in this case sent the very clear message that not only was the world—via the World Book—at my fingertips, but I was in control. Ideas gamboled and fizzed together in my head like bubbles in a flute of champagne. Books and I had a conversation, a friendship, a relationship. And that relationship was a fine and private thing.

Or, at any rate, mostly private. Each Sunday morning with hardly a word or a sound my mother and I would slip out of the house together. We’d slide into the cavernous Delta 88 and glide down the tree-lined streets with the majesty of the QE2. Above us a cathedral of elms linked their arms together in verdant welcome, arching over the car, the light tipping tenderly in and out of the shadows, Sainte-Chapelle itself on the streets of suburban Detroit.

I thought the plan was always to be the first customers to get the bagels while they were hot enough to steam up the glass bins or to fuss about whether we’d get the round flaky onion rolls or the square New Yorkers. That was part of it. But always my mother dug to the bottom of her purse, came up with a handful of quarters, and then let me pick out a crisp and thick copy of the Sunday New York Times from the middle of the pile. Later, she’d silently note which books I’d notched in the “Book Review” section. And somehow, without my saying a word, I’d find copies of whatever books I’d been dreaming about waiting for me on the edge of my bed. She knew.

I think my mother spoke book to me because she couldn’t bear it otherwise. I thought she didn’t know that I never had anyone to sit with at lunch. I thought she didn’t know that I never had anyone to play with at recess, that every day I endlessly circled the perimeter of the playground tensely waiting for it all to be over. I couldn’t seem to talk about whatever everyone else was talking about nor did I care about what everyone else cared about. I was the way I was, small and plump and bookish, hunched with a nearsighted squint that often looked like a grimace.

Once, feathered-haired and blue eye-shadowed at Matthew Fuller’s backyard Bar Mitzvah party, I bravely shuffled through the grass in overlarge high heels to a tight group of chattering girls. I hovered on the edges for a moment, straining to catch the rhythm of their high pitched chirping. But then almost as one they noticed me. Almost as one they looked me up and down. No one smiled. Then with a synchronous click of their tongues, they turned and streamed away from me, wrinkling their noses as if I were a glass of curdled milk. My mother, also a guest at the party, watched helpless from the window. She never said a word. But later she gave me the longed for Life Goes to the Movies. My mother couldn’t live in my shoes, she couldn’t fight my battles. But she could give me books to soothe me, books to provide escape routes. And she did.

In this way then, the densely packed floor of my room, the desk, the chair, the bed, became a topographic map of the world, with veritable mountains of books stacked as high as I could reach, the piles teetering with the elegant precision of a Calder stabile. Slender, barely passable walking paths twisted from bed to door. I needed to have the books as close to me as possible for comfort. It was as if each title were an opportunity to lay claim to the world itself; I was Magellan of the suburbs, Vasco da Gama of junior high. I too was an explorer, albeit of ideas. Harriet the Spy taught me independence; From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler gave me a sense of adventure; The Wind in the Willows led me down a well of unending wonder. Every book my mother shared with me was a pathway, a safety net, a balm. My mother, her own childhood books wrested from her for younger relatives, possessively embraced the piles of art books stashed in her downstairs studio in exactly the same way.

Soon, I took a summer job at iBrowse Books, a place I loved so much that I’d routinely show up early and only grudgingly pull myself away to go home at night. I spoke book with agonizing abandon here. I wanted desperately to match exactly the right book to the right person at the right time. Every time. Somehow I thought if I could get each person the book they needed, it would save them. Their lives would be different, better. As for me, with my discount I took home everything from Anaïs Nin to Norman Rockwell, but I rarely took home a full paycheck.

By the time I was in college I’d managed to bend my art history honors thesis to speaking book as well, solemnly focusing on the Philipp Otto Runge-obsessed author/illustrator Maurice Sendak. There was an overall plan here: to catapult myself from the Midwest to Manhattan and into the world of book publishing. My parents were frightened for me, particularly my stoic and laconic father. He silently handed me a copy of James Stevenson’s I Meant to Tell You.

I wanted to go into book publishing to enter a world where I was sure everyone spoke the same language I did. In actuality, the coffee was sludgy, the pay was abysmal, we Xeroxed for hours on end. But I was there to see the aged and frail Alfred A. Knopf, still elegantly mustachioed, reverentially escorted to his corner office one last time. I was welcomed, as all new Random House hires were, by Donald Klopfer, who told us how he and Bennett Cerf stressed the equality of their partnership and always worked with their desks pushed together. And as I had dreamed, there was no Tower of Babel in book publishing. Everyone just fervently, passionately spoke book. For all of us bibliophagists, book wasn’t just a language, but actual currency as we bartered for what we wanted from the different publishing houses.

About this time I found myself utterly captivated by a tall, handsomely bespeckled and sleekly suited attorney who’d been my seat partner at a haphazard tossed salad of a dinner party. Although his attention was clearly diverted to the blond on my right, I doggedly refused to concede defeat. When I overheard him mention that he was about to depart for a trip to London and Paris, I knew there was no time to waste. The next day I messengered him a copy of Patricia Wells’s superb The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris. Thus baited, he phoned, and we made a plan to meet when he came back to New York. We returned to Paris on our honeymoon and have been happily married for almost thirty years. I could tell from the beginning: he spoke book.

Of course, book was the first language our children ever heard. I read to them as they stared wide-eyed at me, papoosed into their blankets; I read to them as they scooted across the floor; I read to them as they spun crazily around and around in their identical spinny disks. They listened to me read Shakespeare and James Howe, Agatha Christie and Jack Prelutsky, A. A. Milne and M. F. K. Fisher. They used books for building blocks and chose books from the shelves to cuddle for comfort. When they became enthralled by the moon outside our window, I plucked The Grand Tour: A Traveler’s Guide to the Solar System from the shelves and put it in their arms. The funny thing is, when I think back on it, none of my boys ever really learned to read. They just read early and always, joyfully and perfectly from the very beginning. Books were their true language. Everything I couldn’t quite say, everything I felt, was compressed between the words of the books we shared.

As their love of the world and of science grew, they gathered the DK pocket books—Sharks to SkeletonsAircraft to VolcanosInsects to Fossils—swapping them, caressing them, brandishing them proudly. Finally they insisted on carrying their beloved books to the playground at preschool, certain that everyone else spoke book too. They were wrong about that of course. From the parking lot I watched them scurry with their books to the land of swings and slides and monkey bars. No one stopped. No one came over. My boys stood alone and confused, clutching their precious books in their hands.

What had I done?

I had done the best I could, speaking the language I was most comfortable speaking, a language they seemed to understand intuitively. Had I done them a terrible disservice, though?

I don’t think so. With each book I shared with them over the years, each time we said yes to a book they craved, it was an affirmation of their choice, their aspirations, their sense of self. Speaking book was validating their ability to add to the conversation of the world. Each book was a toehold on their way to finding their own true, comfortable place. I had to believe that for them, as for me, books would be the path that would some day bring them to the places they were meant to be.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” the much-loved Mary Oliver asks in “The Summer Day.” After much thought, I realize with a start that I’m actually doing it. I have spoken book my whole life. All these years later, I find that I am still speaking book through Jolabokaflod. I wonder if recommending titles we adore is actually transforming authors into the Cyranos of our lives, conveying the intense emotion that is often too complex for us to express to those we care so deeply for. Through the sharing of books I have tentatively sent tendrils of connection into the world, tiny wisps of love and of thought that gather like steam from a kettle and yet do not dissipate, but are somehow grasped and savored. That’s not simply wild and precious but frankly, miraculous.


 

 

 

Post #105: “It’s a Poor Sort of Memory That Only Works Backwards.”

IMG_2801Dearest All,

It’s time.

Aw, but there are few things I’ve loved more than this!

When I began this project so many years and so many words ago, I was terrified that I’d run out of things to say, petering out like a gasless motorboat stuck in the middle of a lake. Instead, I think I’ve learned to paddle stealthily forward, sometimes stopping both to catch my breath and to enjoy the view. 

This blog is called Notes From The Room in My Head, of course in honor of Virginia Woolf’s  seminal A Room of One’s Own.  That book, and the fact that I’d found a large print edition of it, squirreled away on a back shelf at the public library,  was the subject of my very first blog post in August, 2014.  In this slim volume, Woolf says that to write a woman needs these absolutely essential things:  a small independent income and a quiet private space of one’s own. Moreover a woman needs time to create. I had none of these things.  And yet,

I am incredulous that somehow I consistently managed to squeeze things off the shelf to make the time to think and to write.

I’ve reveled in the experience of making myself a part of the world around me rather than floating unseeing above it all.

I am deeply moved to at last understand at last that there are connections to be made with so many who  take the time to reach out, to read, to offer. That a tentative step out the door is in fact a  brave and brassy renewable swoop of faith.

And oh dang, really and truly,  it’s been fun. And “fun,” said the inimitable Theodor S. Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, “is good.”

Was this a tiny bit of what the luminescent and brilliant Virginia Woolf was thinking all along, cajoling us,  enticing us, goading us all forward?

Over the course of this blog I’ve thought so often about time itself, how one can wrap time back upon itself through  memory, how to make it as malleable as softened marzipan, how to bend it to appreciate it’s differing shapes and changes of pace.

And now it’s time for a shift.

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” said Lewis Carroll.  In my memory going forward then, I have many more things to say, many more things to write.  There will be a bit of a break from the blog, although the writing redoubles. You will hold my work in your hands and I fervently hope, hold it it your minds and your hearts.  You’ll all hear from me again.

Until then, a toast to each and every one of you and a wish for much happiness. Here’s to the power of the written word, to the myriad  joys of reading and writing.  Back in touch soonest.

With thanks and appreciation, C

Post #91: “Let Us Choose Those Pearls”

IMG_1510Ah! Cocooned, nutshelled, encased, enrobed. I’m here, I’m here, I’m home at lingeringly long last. Fortressed, buttressed, I move tentatively from room to room reacquainting myself, finding myself. The Bibendum ashtray, the Trumpet Call harmonica, the tiny pile of stubby Blackwings. Each object, though odd and unassuming in and of itself, is an essential key, a part of my own soul, my own secrets and my own story, transporting me back in time and place in the wunderkammern of my own little world. I can feel myself unclench as I finally am looking at, connecting to what my eyes should be seeing every day. But please no recriminations. I am looking now. Remembering.

The open arms of my day stretch expansively before me. But then the must dos, should dos, could dos lists start to fulminate and burble in my head. I can feel my heart tighten and my breath quicken. Damn! Must we always be doing something important? Can we sometimes drift, to meld into the world without a thought or a care? Can I be brave enough to allow the world to warm me once again, to nourish me as a steaming cup of hot chocolate?

Like soft caramel, the strands lingering, I pull away.

I bundle into my coat, hat pulled firmly down to my ears, a scarf securely wrapped round and round my neck, a tightly tied up package. Each pocket is carefully checked and filled with emergency rations and supplies: ginger candies and peppermints to the left, notepad and extra pencils in the right, spare change, dried cherries, a collection of acorn tops. All the essentials for survival. My hands are deep in my pockets lightly fingering, checking, rechecking.

The Magellan of the North, I set sail for places unknown.

In a few moments I am standing on the train platform, my feet feeling the bumps and nodules of the edge. In the distance I can see a tangle of bare branches, the limbs reaching upward, a silent trembling yearning for spring and warmth and nuanced greenery. The pigeons swoop in unison, arching towards the overpass as the train itself, sinuous and massive, hums into the station. As if responding to my silent command, the doors slide wide open.

I corner myself next to a window as we set off. The buildings blur before me but my eyes are on the clouds. Today they knot and roil in the sky, softly pummeling the air above, truly an Ice Capades of the air.

As we draw into the terminal, I am buffeted in with the others, unconsciously falling into step, all of us strangely solitary amidst the crowd in our rhythmic march. And yet, when one of our number, a woman with her arms burdened with packages, unknowingly drops a bill from her pocket, a boy leaps forward out of formation to snatch it up, to quickly press it into her hand, then retreat back to continue his path. The day begins.

The streets are still damp from the snows, glowing with a winter garden of neon reflection, the cerulean, the sage, the magenta curling and bursting forth with riotous electric bloom. My feet splashing, I make my way to the library, cosseted safely between the twin lions, Patience and Fortitude. Up the marbled staircase through the carved doors to find a seat at the table, a warm corner. My hands smooth to the polished wood of the chairs. Heads bent over wide open volumes, bathed in the light of the golden reading lamps, thoughts seem to twist and promenade though the air itself, sentences cavort, the words hover and float. It is a joy to join the dance.

Later, an old couple sits together at their luncheon table. He wears a beige sweater, she a beige scarf. She serves him the best portions from the platter. He generously pours out the wine. There is little talk but then really, how much is needed? When it’s time for dessert each digs deep into the sweetness.

Soon enough I find my way downtown, drawn to this place as always. If my eyes lovingly caress the bookshelves, the unruly piles and jumbled stacks that form the essential cartography of my home, this place, this temple to what I love best forms a magnetic bond to my soul. I am at The Strand, home to miles and miles of books. There they are. Shelved shoulder to shoulder in their tattered jackets, brave and stalwart. These second hand volumes, each with a story beyond the story between the covers, are what Virginia Woolf calls “the wild books, the homeless books.” As always, they fairly leap into my arms, grateful once again to be remembered and repeated and most of all read. They are rescued. I am revived.

This is what the day has brought. Marvel upon marvel. Joy upon joy. But I wonder, do I only wish to see what’s beautiful before me? If so, is that wrong? Do I, can I, recreate the world each time I interact with it?

“Let us choose those pearls,” writes Virginia Woolf in Street Hauntings. Quite so. Find what gives you joy, cling to what gives you comfort, spot beauty in unexpected places.

Today I chose to find what Woolf calls “a seat in the warm corner, ” refilling the wunderkammern of my heart, my home, my mind. Wander then and go forth to choose your own pearls.

***

Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Street Hauntings: A London Adventure published in The Art of the Personal Essay,: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. Selected and with an introduction by Phillip Lopate

Post #82: Away

IMG_0502We arrived lost, remained so, didn’t care!

No suitcases, no responsibilities, no rules. We were off on a spree, unfettered, blissfully unprepared, bursting out of the front door, wiggling down the walk, sinuously twisting around the corner, skipping down the street. My quicktime double step whirling away to keep up with his laconic, leggy stride. Hand in hand, together. Just as before. Just as always.

The iced vodka chill of the MetroNorth cars gives way to the stultifying heat of the subways. Then up the stairs to the street. There is no cover. But there are waterfalls of rain sheeting from the sky.

The umbrellas are safely tucked away in the front hall closet. I tilt my face and feel the drops hit me fair and square like tiny bursts of joy. In moments, we are soaked through to the skin. I can’t remember the last time I stood in the rain, soaking wet, hair askew, completely and properly improper.

It is a double decker bus and we find seats on top. We dry in degrees as our clothes steam from the heaters, bumping along the highway.

Independence Hall

A stars and stripes shawl is purchased with the dual purpose of celebrating our independence and for sheer warmth. And that is all.

The Reading Terminal Market

Our eyes devour everything from donuts to oysters, sandwiches to schnitzels, burgers to brisket, cheesesteaks and turkey and ribs and corn dogs.

But we choose exactly the same thing: sweet and delicate salmon curries, elegant and etherial, as our twin plastic forks dig like tiny steam shovels into mounds of rice.

The Rosenbach

A few twists and turns on the streets. Then through the doors to a treasure trove.

Cherished leather-bound jewels, missives from times past, bound together, standing proudly, spine to spine:

*A rare first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
* the earliest surviving work by the young Charles Dickens, a parody of Shakespeare’s Othello from 1832
*Two 15th century manuscripts of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales
*Lewis Carroll’s own first edition of Alice in Wonderland
*presentation copy of Erasmus’s Novum Testamentum from 1519 with woodcuts by Hans Holbein

When I encounter series of volumes printed on Gutenberg’s own press I begin to weep, an acolyte at the altar, a devoted scriblarian to my soul.

Zahav

Each nibble tingles then rolls deliciously across our tongues like the unfurling of of banners on the Fourth of July. A bite of this and a bite of that. So much and yet never enough.

The Barnes Foundation

Like a bottomless tureen of caviar, like a never before discovered cache of Mozart Symphonies, like a whole wardrobe designed by Dior, we sat surrounded in long dreamed of splendor.

Monet, Renoir, Matisse,  Cezanne, Seurat, Modigliani.

With only a slight tip one could be immersed, submerged, subsumed, each image a portal to distant universes that somehow still feel so close.

But then it’s time to go. Back to the bus to the subway to the train to the trudge to return home, wrinkled and rusticated and perhaps still slightly damp. But we will be back.

Up the stairs to the porch. A glimmer of light? A darting shadow? There they are! The cats are waiting to welcome us home!

 

Post #81: From Beginning to End

IMG_0353Now why, oh why was this the rarest of pleasures?  Unlashed from the bedsheets, my feet warmed to the nubbles of the carpet, then cooled to the smooth of the hardwood, I made my way silently across the floors and step by careful step down the stairs.   Hair touseled, glasses askew, barefoot and nightgowned. Still dark, the house hummed.

Ah! It was just where I left it.  In a moment it was cradled in my arms. A moment more and I was cushioned into an armchair, feet tucked under and the book—oh that book—cracked open at last! 

Today there would be no rules, no convention, no conversation.  No heart-pounding have-tos, no  “should be doing” guilt, no getting dressed, no real meals. 

Today there would be no breathless snatches of a slap-dash quick read, a wrench back to reality coupled with an anxious pining for more, desperate for the torn moments and a hungering return to the story.

Today I am subsumed and submerged yet wafted aloft, buffeted and plummeted with my story from beginning to end. I float from armchair to sofa, from the lounge to the porch, from the attic to flat out on the floor.  A progressive read from the bottom of the house to the  top,  my eyes never leaving the page.  Oh what a ride!

Dawn becomes noon and noon becomes night.  Thousands of sizzling words jumbled into a joyous Jenga tower! And then at breathtaking last, with a contented sigh I am done.

Like the sweet never-ending all day giant jawbreakers of my childhood, a whole day read.

I’ll do it again!

Post #79: “Spacious Pastures of the Spirit”

FullSizeRenderI started this activity for all the wrong reasons.

I don’t just embrace schedules. I am constricted and a bit smothered by them, like a hapless fly caught in spiderweb, oddly proud nonetheless. My day, and each activity in it, is carefully choreographed and timed as I punch and feint through each moment. My joy is magnified as I smugly check things off my lists—only to begin another as soon as all my checks are made.I don’t just make every moment count. I squeeze the daylights out of every second. Again and again and again. Good for me. Good for me?

And so when I found this idea—this brilliant idea— via The Art of Manliness blog I snagged it. There are minutes wasted in every single day, they noted. Time spent waiting in line, a moment or two before an appointment, downtime before dinner (at least when someone else is cooking it). Grab those moments, they implored. Make them count. What if, The Art of Manliness noted, one spent that rattling bagful of minutes reading? A bit here and a bit there? Do those moments add up? They do. Oh yes they do.

And so tentatively I began.

My work, in its various iterations over the decades, has always meant that I essentially read for a living. This makes things a bit harder because reading, which I believe with my whole heart should always been a joy, is sometimes for me a slog. And so, I determined that my special moments of reading book would never been a book I am supposed to be reading and thinking about for work. These stolen moments throughout the day, then, would not be work. They would be just for me.

It wasn’t hard to dig through the pile of night table books to find the first ones to slide into my backpack, nestled between my wallet and my phone charger. I grabbed my reading moments greedily, beginning with Northern Farm by Henry Beston

I read it in tiny gulps, a minute or two here, a few leftover seconds there. Like a hummingbird dipping into a daylily. Weeks later, I came to and end and began another, The Living Mountain by Nan Shepard, then Beston’s The Outermost House, followed by the poems of Rumi. The pile of books is unending.

The interesting things is there shouldn’t have been time to read these books. And yet, by snatching the moments, there were. Was I somehow making time itself burgeon and expand?

By lassoing lost moments, tweezering them in to my tightly stitched scheduling, I found that I was providing myself with something truly extraordinary. I was making these stolen moments not scheduled work but as Rumi said, “spacious pastures of the spirit.” Over and over, even for a few brief moments I could melt into thought.

It’s a gift that each of us can so easily give ourselves. Just find things that you love to read. Find the spare moments to read them.

The words and thoughts will set your spirit soaring!

 

Thanks to the always interesting The Art of Manliness Blog for the idea. Definitely worth a look for any of you have haven’t found them yet. http://www.artofmanliness.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE COURAGE OF HARPER LEE

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I was jazzed and completely dazzled when I heard the news. Everyone was. After more than fifty years no less a source than the Associated Press confirmed on February 3 that Harper Lee would be publishing what they referred to as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the finest novels ever written. The only novel Harper Lee ever published. The publishing news of a lifetime.

All great authors leave us wanting more, and there is no question that Harper Lee is among the greatest for not just for creating characters of immense sympathy and depth but for crafting a story of tremendous resonance to time and place. It is a book that illuminates not just vicious injustice but has at its core a celebration of kindness and decency. It was and is and will remain a work of remarkable courage. Like only a handful of others—The Origin of the Species, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Silent Spring—it’s a book that changed the world. So many people have said as such far more elegantly than I.

I knew, everyone knew, that Harper Lee stopped giving interviews in 1964, shortly after the initial publication of the book in 1960.  I didn’t and don’t know much about her. But here’s what’s very clear: Harper Lee said what she wanted to say in Mockingbird the way she wanted to say it.   It is equally clear that she has long valued her privacy. She chose to share To Kill a Mockingbird. To my mind when an author publishes a book, the author is reaching out to the world. The published book is almost a gift, an offering. With readers, a connection is formed, a partnership that completes and recreates the book time and time again. But to me, that’s where the partnership ends. I don’t have a right to know what an author—or any one else for that matter–eats for breakfast or what they might think about Kanye hopping up on the stage once again at the Grammy Awards.

There are precious few of us who can write a book such as To Kill a Mockingbird. But if nothing else, all of us are the authors of own lives. We cherish the ability to actively, or sometimes subconsciously, craft our own myths; to tell our own stories they way we want them told. All of us also have the right to keep some things private, to keep our own secrets for our own reasons.

This thought of privacy and personal secrets is true whether someone is as quiet as Harper Lee or as exuberantly out there as Lady Gaga.  Beware, be cautious. Most public people, who talk about themselves constantly, are fueling an image for the public. We should never make the mistake of thinking we know who they really are or what they really think. We most emphatically do not. For some people their public persona becomes an extension of their craft. That’s fine. But obviously that’s not true for everyone. I don’t think it should be.

It didn’t take long to discover the AP actually had it wrong about the new Harper Lee book. Quite wrong. The “new” book wasn’t new. It seemed that it had been thought lost, and recently been rediscovered. More troublingly, there are murmurs that Harper Lee herself is quite frail, with diminished eyesight and hearing. Her sister Alice Lee, long her attorney and protector, has recently died. It seems as well that Harper Lee’s editor at HarperCollins has never spoken to her directly but has dealt only with her friend and attorney, Tonja Carter and her literary agent, Andrew Nurnberg.

Although the forthcoming book features the adult Scout and other characters from Mockingbird, apparently it was not conceived as sequel. According to reports on ABC News, the book was written prior to Mockingbird itself. According to a quote from Ms. Lee published in a HarperCollins press release and quoted by ABC News, the manuscript was the first book Harper Lee submitted and her original 1950s editor who suggested that she rewrite it from the perspective of Scout as a child. This purportedly new book then is an unpublished, nay rejected, manuscript that was the leaping off point for what became Mockingbird.   This is emphatically not a carefully constructed companion volume to Harper Lee’s opus.

Of course it’s possible that this lost or forgotten manuscript has just resurfaced. Of course it’s possible that the 88-year-old author might truly want it published. People can change. They can certainly change their minds. Ms. Lee’s friend and attorney Tonja Carter has worked closely with Alice Lee for a very long time and is a person that Ms. Lee trusts. I refuse to believe that she would take advantage of the elderly and frail author. But still something feels uncomfortable here.

But it’s tantalizing to think about reading a story about the adult Scout. Just as it’s tantalizing to think that somewhere J.D. Salinger has squirreled away a fifty-year saga of the Glass family. God help us if that turns up someday.

Here’s what I think. For more than 50 years Harper Lee chose to present her viewpoint, her story as To Kill a Mockingbird. It doesn’t make sense to me that she would now look to publish what could be described as a previously rejected manuscript to support what has always been viewed as a fully formed statement in Mockingbird. It doesn’t make sense.  Except, of course, that there is a great deal of money to be made here. According to ABC News the forthcoming book is “in the top 10 on barnesandnoble.com” and the publisher has set a “first printing of 2 million copies. “ This might be a good moment to mention that the ivory tower of book publishing also a business. And it’s a basic fact. Business need to make money.

What is the real story?   Is it possible that the media is improperly reporting that story now? I just don’t know. But I’m deeply uncomfortable. If Harper Lee is impaired in some way or has made the choice to publish this book either under duress of some kind to read this forthcoming book smacks of voyeurism to me.

I won’t do it.

What I will do is reread To Kill a Mockingbird.  In this small way I hope to honor the work and legacy of the very private and very courageous Harper Lee.

Note:

Above image from The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, written and illustrated by David Allen Sibley